Kid on a Hot Tin Can
Once, when I was seven years old, I set a tin can on fire in the basement of my house. It wasn’t just me. Jimbo and Brenda from across the street sat around the tin can with me, in the dark of the unfinished basement smelling like old water, and helped me stuff the pieces of newspaper into the rusty can. We found the match, on the lawn in Jimbo’s backyard. It was still in the cardboard flip pack and when we opened it, it stood alone like a red hooded soldier, waiting for duty.
“We shouldn’t do this,” Brenda whispered in the dark, her face buried down into her chubby knees. “It can’t be a good thing. My mom said never to play with matches, ever.” Her voice intense, the childlike high pitched laughing sound gone, and something strangely adult replacing it.
“Don’t be silly,” I tried to rationalize. “It’s not like we’re playing with it. We’re just trying to see if we can make a small fire down here to warm up the place. It’s practical.” I had stretched the word out, mimicking my mother when she made me buy the double strap brown oxfords on my feet. They’re practical, she’d said, and wouldn’t listen that practical and my new found femininity, even at seven, were at opposite ends of the spectrum.
“Okay Jimbo,” I’d said, handing him the cardboard cover. “You can light the match. You’re the boy and that’s what boys do.”
Jimbo’s nail bitten fingers took the package from my hand, flipping the cover and snapping off the cardboard stick. “Are you sure we should be doing this,” he’d said, holding one part in each hand.
“Oh, give it to me.” I took the match and dragged it across the sulphur strip, the scratching sound the only noise the three of us shared in that moment. Scratch, scratch, scratch. I could smell the sulphur under my nose. And then it exploded in a tiny burst of flame. I screamed and tossed it from my hand, and by some strange twist of fate, it landed in the can stuffed with newspaper, catching a corner and blackening it into a thin twisted smile. Then the whole can went up into a blaze of its own. All three of us yelled, and ran from the basement, leaving the can to burn itself out.
“We gotta call the fire department,” Brenda’s face was all white and tight looking. “But we’re gonna get in big trouble. Big trouble.”
‘No we’re not.” I took the position that if we weren’t at the scene of the crime, we would not be culpable. And Jimbo was already long gone, leaving us girls to fend for ourselves. I could smell just the hint of smoke coming from the basement window.
Looking back now, I marvel at my innocence, my belief that if I didn’t visualize the worst, that if I walked away from it, nothing bad would happen.
The house didn’t burn down, but my parents did smell the smoke and manage to run down to investigate its source. The can sat on its own, holding the charred remains of my very limited perspective.
Looking back, I see now how close we came to a disaster just because I changed the rationale of the rules. Maybe a little like Eve in a way. Not understanding the cost.
I learned never to play with fire again as a child. I learned that there was a consequence for every rule I broke, and I eventually began to understand the reason for the rules. I still need to watch the tin cans in my life, to keep from striking matches that can still do harm. God didn’t give us the rules to make us miserable. He gave them to us to keep us from being miserable and to cause misery.
Childhood is an interesting classroom, but the temptation to break the rules, however small they may seem, remains a daily battle.
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